With the increasingly insular nature of our news media here in the United States, it may have slipped by many Americans that one of the activists investigating school collapses during China’s 2008 earthquake has been imprisoned.
Not that the news we’ve been getting isn’t unimportant: Haiti remains a major focus for obvious reasons, the second blizzard to hit Washington DC in a week has kept the federal government shut down for days (probably the most productive time Capitol Hill has seen in years), and petulant Iran is saber-rattling again.
With all of this as a backdrop, maybe China thought it was a good time to sentence one of its more bothersome "subversives" to five years in prison in what human rights watchers claim is a travesty of justice, even by Chinese standards. Indeed, little seems to be changing in this emerging superpower, as Beijing continues to take the world’s money while oppressing its own people at the same time.
Why Did So Many Schoolhouses Collapse?
In 2008, the world’s attention was riveted to the Sichuan province of China after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake there killed over 80,000 people. The disaster came as China prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Yet while world leaders offered aid, Chinese officials rebuffed most efforts to help, instead committing themselves to the Herculean task of caring for their dead, injured, and homeless. So effective were they, in fact, that relief agencies lauded the Chinese for apparently responding in such an efficient and comprehensive fashion.
Except there was one glaring problem that many local Chinese residents noticed right away. Walking among the ruins of their communities, townspeople immediately noticed that many of the school buildings constructed by the government had fallen flat, killing many of the students inside. The significance – and perplexity – of this scenario was that buildings right next to destroyed schools were still standing, or only moderately damaged. Why the discrepancy between so many school buildings that collapsed, and their neighboring structures that didn’t?
Chinese citizen Tan Zuoren, an environmentalist and writer, who already had a record with the government police for purportedly “subversive” civil rights activities, joined the increasing chorus of people who were alarmed by this incongruity. Was there an explanation for the pattern of destroyed schools among other intact structures? Why did the schools display such apparently inferior construction causing so many children to be crushed in their collapse?
In December of 2008, unable to get answers from conventional sources, Tan began his own investigation. Rumors that Chinese officials were bought-off by rogue contractors flickered about the closed country. Were some people so corrupt that they knowingly allowed sub-standard construction of school buildings within an earthquake-prone area?
The One-Child Policy and the Loss of So Many Children
Of course, while any child's death is tragic, the loss of schoolchildren to families in China becomes even more unbearable when considering the government’s one-child policy. Officially, couples in China can only have one child. In the Communist country’s large, urbanized, westernized cities, wealthier couples can bribe officials to look the other way when they have more than one child; indeed, ancient Chinese tradition holds that a family's status can hinge on having multiple children.
However, many families in the less urbanized, less wealthy, and less westernized parts of China don’t have the means to defy the one-child policy. Losing their only child can mean a bitter future for Chinese adults who depend on their child for help in their old age, and who may not be young enough to conceive another child anymore. Knowing your only child was killed in a building improperly constructed by the same government that enforces the one-child policy would just boggle the mind.
Instead of Kangaroo Court, "Panda Court"?
Which brings us back to Tan, who although knowing the risks, went ahead with an ambitious investigation to first determine exactly how many children died – the government initially refused to release the figure of over 5,000 – and why. He had the support of many distraught parents, some of whom tried to attend his court trial in August of 2009 and sentencing this week, but were roughed-up by guards and forbidden to monitor the proceedings.
When the dust cleared, Tan was sentenced to five years for inciting subversion related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. In 2007, Tan had written an essay about the landmark pro-democracy demonstrations, and in 2008, he helped organize a blood drive – of all the dastardly things – in commemoration of the protests. Apparently, no mention was made in court to his schoolhouse investigation, the cause for which he's become famous.
Obviously, the Chinese government has never come to terms with that fateful day in 1989. Even now, they consider the Tiananmen event to be an aberration in their population’s adoration of their rule. Officials were none too pleased that Tan stuck his neck out so far in 2007 and 2008, as Tiananmen's twentieth anniversary was approaching, and the world was in awe of the spectacle Beijing was crafting for the Olympic games.
So when Tan began rocking the boat and probing the collapse of school buildings after the Sichuan earthquake, it seemed as good a time as any for authorities to kill two birds with one stone.
Business As Usual
Tan wasn't even the first person jailed for pursuing an investigation into allegedly negligent schoolhouse construction in China. That dubious honor goes to Huang Qi, who is already serving a three-year sentence for "revealing state secrets" in relation to his inquiry on the same topic.
Amazingly, what the Chinese government fails to recognize in all of their posturing, puppet courts, and prosecution of dissidents – not just Tan and Huang – is that nobody is convinced they’re telling the truth. The parents who support Tan know what is happening, civil rights activists in China know what is happening, and from what I’ve heard from friends who’ve visited China, virtually all of its citizens know their government is lying to them.
I’m assuming that this latest apparent example of egregious denial of justice on the part of the Chinese will simply be added to the dossier our State Department already has for civil rights abuses in the world’s second-largest economy. When China recently surpassed Japan to become second only to the United States in financial might, there was some hope that its historically repressive government would soften its humanitarian stance. Either Tan’s sentence is the old guard’s last gasp at power, or it’s just more of the same, with no change in sight.
Indeed, no less a world power than search engine giant Google continues drawing lines in the sand regarding China’s draconian surveillance and censorship of Internet content. Indignant, Chinese officials tried to bluff their way into good graces with the information technology industry by boasting of their hundreds of thousands of bloggers. What they failed to acknowledge is numbers mean nothing – it’s the content that is important. Are these bloggers able to write about anything they want?
For its part, the United States has made a formal protest of Tan’s imprisonment. Maybe it’s also a good sign that some press were allowed in the courthouse building to report on the verdict.
However, for every "Made in China" trinket and appliance Americans buy, and every bridge built in the States with Chinese steel, we apparently continue to enable one of the most powerful governments in the world to suppress freedoms we take for granted all the time.
Obviously, there’s not much you and I can do about it right now that hasn’t already been done. But the next time you or someone you know goes on a business trip to China, or you pick up something in the store and see the “Made in China” label, maybe it would help to remember people like Tan Zuoren. People you’ll never see – because they’ve been banished to prisons – but who represent a struggle for something China’s newfound wealth has yet been able to purchase.
And something sometimes our wealth makes us forget.